There’s nothing that cleanses your soul like getting the hell kicked out of you.” Woody Hayes, American collegiate gridiron football coach, (1913-1987)
Soothsayers, armchair analysts and Hollywood have nothing on real life as it happens, especially when it involves dealing with an unrelenting virus and the pandemic that has viciously ensued in its path. Over the past few months, it would seem our whole world has been turned upside down.
I have heard many refer to these things as the “new normal”. It is a “normal” that has been difficult to get used to: cancelled Masses, churches closed, the necessity of physical distancing, people losing their jobs, mounting debt, and financial obligations, fear of getting sick, an overwhelming sense of helplessness for many. I do not know that I want to get used to these things in particular. I do not know that anybody does, for that matter.
What I do know is that, while this “new normal” has brought with it much worry, anxiety and fear for many people, this is not a time to lose heart and despair.
Within these trying times, there are unexpectedly beautiful opportunities for increasing our faith, hope and love.
Source and Summit of our Lives
In the province of Ontario (Canada) where we live, the temporary closure of businesses and organizations engaged in non-essential services came into effect very recently. Events involving groups of 50 or more people were already prohibited within our province. Hence, the public celebration of the Mass was not possible, one monumental change among several, to the lives of those who practice the Catholic faith.
The last time I received our Lord in the Holy Eucharist was on the second Sunday of Lent, March 8, 2020. I could not have imagined then – even in my wildest dreams or scariest nightmares – not being able to attend Holy Mass at all.
It is no small thing, nor a negligible inconvenience, that the faithful are not able to take part in the celebration of the Holy Mass. As stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church itself:
The Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life.” “The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it. For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself, our Pasch.
The Eucharist is the efficacious sign and sublime cause of that communion in the divine life and that unity of the People of God by which the Church is kept in being. It is the culmination both of God’s action sanctifying the world in Christ and of the worship men offer to Christ and through him to the Father in the Holy Spirit.
Finally, by the Eucharistic celebration we already unite ourselves with the heavenly liturgy and anticipate eternal life, when God will be all in all (CCC 1324-1326).
United in Spirit
However, in these times of drastic measures, the consolation and affectionate guidance of the shepherds of our Church are very welcome. Thomas Cardinal Collins wrote in a letter to the faithful of the Archdiocese of Toronto (dated March 17, 2020),:
So many of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world are deprived of the opportunity to celebrate the Holy Eucharist, for many reasons. Due to this health emergency we also will now experience their suffering. Perhaps this sacrifice will help us to cherish more profoundly the great gift of the Holy Eucharist. There is no substitute for personally participating in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, which is the source and summit of our life in Christ, and we pray for the time when this may be universally available once more.
It is important to follow carefully the provisions of the health authorities, but it also essential that our spiritual life be enhanced and strengthened all the more during this crisis. At this time, when we are reminded of the brevity of life and of our own mortality, we are called to go deeper to our spiritual foundations.
Our inability to be able to physically celebrate the Holy Mass as a community should not mean the end of our ability to unite ourselves to God and to each other. On the contrary, this unfortunate set of circumstances presents the chance for us to hone and refine our ability to unite our spirits to God, our Father, and to the Church as a whole. As children of God, this is a standing invitation our Lord makes to us at every single moment of every single day.
I can only speak for myself and of my own shortcomings: I regret the many times in which I have been physically present at Holy Mass, and yet mentally distracted and spiritually lacking in fervour and love. Yet, this regret must re-energize (not paralyze!) me and anyone else who may realize the same thing regarding their faith and in particular the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. We need to unite ourselves now, more than ever, through the communion of the saints, to our Holy Father and the bishops, and to all the faithful of the Church. The physical absence of the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist in our lives right now underscores the fundamental need we have for God and to strengthen our faith, hope and love.
Unable as we are to receive physically Jesus Himself in the Holy Eucharist, we can unite ourselves to Him through our desire to receive Him by praying a spiritual communion, such as this, which St. Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei, learned in his youth and taught others:
“I wish my Lord to receive you, with the purity, humility and devotion with which your Most Holy Mother received you, with the spirit and fervor of the saints.”
There are other ways to make a spiritual communion, and the beauty of this is that we can make this several times, regardless of time of day or circumstances – especially when we “attend” the Mass via television or online. There is no limit to the number of times we can spiritually unite ourselves to Jesus!
There is nothing, of course, that can take the place of physically receiving the Holy Eucharist, but the pain itself we may feel of not being able to do so becomes something we can offer up to our Lord Himself. With absence, it has been said, that the heart grows fonder. Spiritual communions become our “bridge” to close that gap between God and ourselves. Let us take advantage of this hidden and unexpected chance to grow in faith and love, especially during this time of Lent.
These days, one of the things, which continue to be echoed by every single person in front of the camera or microphone, is the importance and need to wash our hands well. The same goes for the need for physical distancing in order to slow down the rate or flatten the curve of the spread of the virus.
In a very similar way, we must be mindful of the ever-present cloud of fear and despair that threatens the minds and hearts of those of whose lives have been changed and altered drastically by this pandemic. Mental health, as it is affected by these uncertain times, is a major concern for many leaders and health professionals. So, too, should we take care of our spiritual health, which is greatly affected and inextricably joined to our physical and mental conditions for as long as we are alive on this earth.
With different levels of government struggling to deal with the ramifications of a fast-spreading virus among their citizens, so-called draconian measures of crowd-control and physical movement have been put in place. There are those that profess to prefer death rather than give up their “freedom”. Some tout wild conspiracy theories, while there are those (and really they are many), who declare that they will not be told by the government what they can or cannot do, regardless of how these restrictions may be for the good of everyone. These days, if these people are to be believed, it would seem that freedom itself is a commodity, which is fast disappearing off the shelves of the grocery of humanity.
Yet we, as children of God the Father and beloved of Christ and the Holy Spirit, must hold fast to something greater and stronger than our physical freedom and the comforts and conveniences of our worldly liberties. Freedom is more and greater than what we can physically do.
In a lecture on December 5, 2018, at the University of Notre Dame, French spiritual director, and author Fr. Jacques Philippe, spoke about freedom. What follows is a transcription of part of the video recording of his lecture given in French and translated in English:
Freedom is not strictly the capacity to be able to change our situation. It’s not simply a certain power. But it’s often….to accept certain things that we cannot change. It’s the things that in front of I am incapable, that I could not change or transform, but nevertheless with a look of faith, with a look of hope, I receive and I welcome…and I accept. I accept my limitations and I accept what I cannot transform. It’s often like this that we need to exercise our freedom. Not always in transforming things but also in welcoming and accepting the reality just as it is that I don’t always have the power to change.
He continues to say that this suggests a certain amount of humility and trust and it is a “good exercise of our freedom to accept a reality, not the way I want it to be, but the way it is.”
This is, perhaps, a big part of what is at the crux of all the angst, despair and unhappiness that many are experiencing right now. We are living out a reality that we did not choose nor want. It is unwelcome, unappealing and uncertain. It limits us in ways we would have thought stark raving mad and unimaginable in this day and age. Yet – here we are, on a new footing and in circumstances, which have shaken us to the very core of the things we hold dear in this world: physical well-being, financial security, technological advance and prowess, freedom in so many other things.
Abiding Trust and Hope
As I write this, I know one thing for certain: I do not know what will come next. This uncertainty and lack of foreknowledge, however, cannot stop me from making dinner as I normally do, enjoy the extended company of my children, and pray for God’s providence today and whatever else is to come. When I go to sleep tonight, it will not be with certainty that I will wake up to a world devoid of trouble and sickness. If I do wake up tomorrow morning, it will be because my time on earth is not yet done and what I can do, I must do. I will be grateful for the new day. Much depends on how I live my life in the world today.
We should be grateful for the days that come, no matter how dark or dire they seem to be. While we are still alive, there is hope. We may not be able to celebrate the Mass in church in person, but our every day and every action become an offering on the spiritual altar of our lives. By virtue of our baptism, we too are priestly souls, and we must make every effort to bring Christ to others, however, limited our physical scope is for now. Technology is precisely a gift that will help us transcend the limitations of physical distance.
Let us care for each other and connect in the many ways that we can – be it spiritually, through technology, or some other medium. In this way, we become Christ Himself for others, doing God’s work as we are called to on this earth.